Ethiopia Shall Unbury Her Head Out of the Sand

Tanzanian President Magufuli died on Wednesday, after Government officials had insisted he was working normally and Police arrested four people on charges of spreading false information about the health of political leaders.

Let that be a lesson for Ethiopian people and leaders.  Burying your head in the sand and denying a problem, is not a solution.  Truth may take time but definitely comes out.  The denial I am referring to, is the Covid situation in the country as well as the political ones.

I am sorry to refer to yet another death this week to elaborate my point.  On Monday, Tewodros Bunamaw, a popular ‘Buna’ football club supporter and a RIDE driver was killed by three people in his vehicle. He was loved and respected by Addis Ababa residents for his advocacy for Ethiopian unity, particularly his efforts to mark Adwa victory as a motivator to unite people beyond ethnic divisions.

Thousands of people attended his funeral, wearing yellow ‘Buna’ football Club jersey in honour of his short life.  Video footage shows only a handful of people wearing masks.  Ethiopians are obviously largely denying the severity of Covid19 pandemic.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph9TyUmYcso The majority of the people who celebrated the Adwa victory earlier this month, are also denying the devastation and pain the people in that same region are currently undergoing.

How can one possibly be proud of the victory of Adwa and at the same time deny the pain that people in the same region are going through?  Please put yourself in their shoes for a moment; take off your blinkers and try to see beyond the ethnic divide, ‘Them’ and ‘Us’.  Although there is evidence showing that some of the atrocities claimed in the recent Tigray war are fake, that does not necessarily mean humanitarian abuse didn’t take place.   As for the people of Tigray, particularly those in the diaspora, have the decency to admit the source of this misery are mostly your political leaders. 

The leaders of Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) involved poor civilians in three wars in their lifetime.  At least in the first guerrilla war the people had no option but fight along as they were already considered as the enemy by the Derg. But, what did that victory bring to regular farmers in the region?  When I went on a community tourism trip to rural towns near Hauzen seven years ago, there was no running water or electricity.  Most TPLF leaders used their position to enrich themselves and their relatives while the ordinary rural people of Tigray didn’t have much to show for wars they fought three times over and buried their loved ones for. 

Atrocities based on ethnic politics have been taking place everywhere in the country, and it is not likely to stop anytime soon.  The solution to both the Covid19  situation and attacks based on ethnic based hatred is to stop denying the problem exists. 

Ethiopians please open your eyes and ask yourselves if you are part of the problem or the solution to the problem.  Stop pointing your fingers at others. Pull your heads out of the sand and stretch your hands in supplication to God.  Pray for love, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing in our land. Advocate for human rights and justice to all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity.  Protect yourselves and your loved ones from the vicious pandemic.

Requiem for Potatoes by Bethlehem Attfield

This amusing audio musical story is based on Adam Reta’s Amharic short story Yedinich Mewasit – translated and produced by Bethlehem Attfield. It is set on a farm where potatoes passionately discuss the meaning of life and death through chorus. The green potato is ostracised from the community for boldly standing against the wide held belief that their life is predestined and that death in service of nourishing humans is to be celebrated and welcome. Although the green potato manages to defy the self-sacrifice rule, will he succeed to completely evade fate within the food chain? This Ethiopian allegorical story is a social satire for young people’s unwavering belief and reckless behaviour.

Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/aud…/479209152/Requiem-for-PotatoesKobo, Walmart: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/audiobook/requiem-for-potatoesGoogle Play: https://play.google.com/…/Adam_Reta_translated_by…Chirp: https://www.chirpbooks.com/…/requiem-for-potatoes-by…Apple: https://books.apple.com/us/audiobook/id1535012368

The Scroll of Azeb – Part II

A Greek historian who had traveled to South Arabia to document firsthand information about the Christian rule in the area, arrived in Himyar, and was referred to Yacob. Yacob told him about Azeb’s scrolls and the foreigner, overjoyed at the possibility of first hand information, begged to be allowed to review it.  The historian was impressed with Azeb’s scroll and volunteered to teach her some European history.  I was uncomfortable with the way Azeb was totally focused in academics, at a time where she should be keen to learn domestic management.  I decided to start telling her about the life expected of a woman in our society.  I wasn’t much older than her when I got engaged to her father.  I thought telling her about my engagement and wedding would be a good start to get her to think about her future.

Megabit eight was such a sad day for me.  It was the twelve anniversary of my birth, and I found out that I was to marry Negad Ras Ermias, the minister of Finance.  This meant the end of childhood for me, but most of all, separation from my cousin Kaleb.  The wedding was to be a month later, on Fasika, Easter day.  Kaleb who was quite fond of Ermias, vouched for his honourable characters, and assured me that it was the best marriage arrangement’.

Azeb smiled and nodded her head in agreement to the description of her father.

‘The groom sent my family a gift of two Arabian stallions, five camels, a herd of cattle and boxes of cotton and silk garments as well as gold and amber jewelry. My father, may God forgive him, was a greedy and adulterous man, just like his sister, the late Queen.  He kept most of the gifts my fiancé sent and even distributed some of the jewelry among his many concubines.’

I could hear Azeb gulping air at my ruthless description.  ‘I am telling you this because there is a lesson to be learnt,’ I said.  ‘My mother, in her wisdom, had instructed Kaleb and I, to beware of the vices of my father and his mother from an early age.  She urged us to break the curses of greed and adultery, so we may not become like them’.

I went on to describe how a couple of days before the wedding feast; a bridal tent was pitched for me.  As the women sang bridal songs of wisdom, and decorated my hands with henna, I started to relax.  The songstress sang along from Proverbs, as she gently strums the kirar six-string lyre;

The wife of noble character who can find?

She is worth far more than rubies.

Her husband has full confidence in her

And lacks nothing of value.

She brings him good, not harm,

All the days of her life.

While my body was massaged with fragrant oils, I pondered on the wisdom of the lyrics.  Why should I be sad? – I questioned myself.  There is a season for everything, right?  At least that is what my mother said.  Well I have enjoyed my childhood.  Now, I should be thankful for coming to a stage in my life, where I can fulfill the purpose of my life; that is to bring glory to God by being a good wife and mother.

Bride sketch

My hair was freshly braided with gold pendants sewn where the braid started near my forehead.  For the wedding day I wore the traditional light cotton dress embroidered with vibrant colourful cross patterns in silk.   My mother helped me put the special wedding kaba, a red velvet cape embroidered with gold and held out the mirror given to her by the Queen, to examine myself.   What I saw in the reflection was, a beautiful young woman trying to be content and grateful, while still unsure about what life has in store for her.

‘I believe life never managed to crush that optimism out of you, Imma-ma. You stayed content and grateful, right?’  I knew from Azeb’s earnest look, she was trying to figure out if she would be content to believe the purpose of her life was to be a good wife and mother.

‘My precious, I would be lying if I didn’t admit there were challenges, but I chose to remain content through them.  Everyone has a different calling.  I am sure that you have already found out that yours is different from mine’.  As I say that I was reminded of what my mother said her’s was, when I visited her at Kaleb’s palace five years after my wedding day, with my two girls in tow;

‘Mother, I thank God for making married life easier for me, by hearing my prayers and providing me with an honourable husband, unlike in every sense to my father’.

My mother, who never spoke ill of anyone, unless there was a lesson to be learned, shook her head. She raised the clay pot and slowly poured a cup of coffee and handed it to me.  She then looked around to make sure her granddaughters were out of earshot.

“What you said is true.  It must be easier to be a good wife to an honourable man.  I am glad you praise God for this gift.  However, God never gives us beyond what we can bear.  I thank God for giving me the opportunity to raise you, your brother, and Kaleb to be upright people, uncorrupt by the bad blood that pulses through your veins.  I consider this an honour and a blessing’.

****

My efforts to make Azeb concentrate in the domestics of a family life did not succeed.  King Abreha overextended himself by preparing a campaign against Mecca.

Azeb was totally absorbed in documenting this campaign.  ‘It feels like our King was inflated with self grandeur’ wrote the ever-emboldened Azeb in her scroll.  ‘He was simply jealous that Ekklesia, the beautiful Cathedral he built here in Saa’na, was not receiving as many pilgrims as that of the Ka’bah in Mecca. His faithful advisor, my uncle Yakob tried to reason with him, but to no avail’.

My wise brother saw disaster coming our way.  While King Abreha was busy preparing for war against Mecca, Yacob put me and my entire family on the next fleet bound to Adulis port.  No matter how I, and my daughter Azeb begged him, he refused to come with us and abandon his King.

While Azeb and I freely let our tears wash our face in parting, our men stayed stoic.  Yokob’s ten year old son Melaeke’s eyes were brimming with tears, but following the men’s demeanor, he bravely held back his tears as he got on board the ship with us.

Islamic tradition labeled the campaign that followed as ‘the year of the elephant’.

Azeb wrote, according to the accounts of my uncle Yakob, who went to this battle and lived to tell the tale:

King Abreha, the Christian ruler of Himyarite, which was subject to the Kingdom of Axum of Abyssinia marched upon the Ka’bah with a large army, including many elephants, with the intention of destroying the sacred site.

The king himself rode a huge elephant; an animal which the Arabs had not seen before.  Trained war elephants were effective psychological weapons to use on previously unexposed enemy.  The bright and formidable armour worn by elephants helped encourage the menace.  That is how the year came to be known as ‘Amul-Fil (the year of the elephant). When news of the advance of Abreha’s army spread, the Arabian tribes joined together to defend the Ka’bah.

Year of elephant

With the elephants making a formation march, the army arrived at the suburbs of Mecca.  King Abreha to ensure the frightful show was successful, strategically sent a small group to capture most of the camels and young people in town. The group captured many animals, including two hundred of Abdul-Muttalib’s.
 
Meanwhile, Abreha sent an ultimatum to Quraish.

‘My King says he has come in peace’, the messenger declared. ‘My King’s only aim is to destroy the pagan Arabs’ place of worship. If you do not interfere you will be left alone, but if you try to defend it, beware for you will be crushed along with it’.

Then the messenger gave a frightening description of the King’s huge army, which, admittedly, was much larger and better equipped than all the Arab’s tribes combined strength.

Abdul-Muttalib, and some other prominent leaders, went to see Abreha. Abreha was informed before hand of the prestige and position of ‘Abdul-Muttalib. When he entered the king’s tent, Abreha rose from his throne, warmly welcomed him, and seated the visitor next to him on the carpet. After some pleasantries, Abdul-Muttalib requested Abreha to release his camels. Abreha was astonished. He said:

‘When my eyes fell upon you, I was so impressed by you that had you requested me to withdraw my army and go back to Himyar, I would have granted that request. But now, I have no respect for you. Why? Here I have come to demolish the House which is the religious center of yours and of your forefathers and the foundation of your prestige and respect in Arabia, and you say nothing to save it; instead, you ask me to return your few camels back to you?’

‘Abdul-Muttalib said: ‘I am the owner of the camels, and so I am responsible to get them back.  But this House has its own Owner who will surely protect it.’

Abreha was impressed by this reply. He ordered the camels to be released. Before he could start the siege of the Ka’bah the next day he fell terribly ill during the night.  The fever that he had felt a couple of days earlier, raged his body throughout the night, following by back pain and vomiting.  Just before he started passing in to oblivion at daybreak, Yakob noticed the first red pustule and realized that the king and his army were being plagued with smallpox.

Yacob was unaffected by the plague because his Bedouin friends had used the age-old prevention used among their tribes called ‘hitting the smallpox’ while he lived with them.  This is a process that involved the collection of fluid from a smallpox pustule and rubbing it into a cut made on the healthy person as a form of inoculation.

So he took over the command, and ordered the army to head back to Himyar, for fear that the local Arabs would decimate them while they were weakened.  Once they had made some distance from Mecca, Yakob erected camp and started treating Abreha and his officials with the Bedouin treatment he had learned in desert.

Yakob ordered all those displaying pustules to be divided by rank and put in ten tents.  Every inch of each tent was taken over by those afflicted by pustules; as many as thirty in a tent.  He then went from tent to tent steaming the dried willow tree barks he carried in his medical bag to act as painkiller.  Yakob knew that the virus would eventually spread through the throat and suffocate the patients, so he used conifer oil as decongestant.

Despite his best efforts, Yakob reported that he lost a few thousand of Abreha’s men before the recovered army reached Sa’ana.  When Abreha’s two sons heard the news, they quarantined the pockmarked and wretched lot, including their father, at a leper colony at the edge of town and took power in their own hands.

Islamic literature relates to the same battle as follows;

‘A dark cloud of small birds (known in Arabic as ababil) overshadowed the entire army of Abreha. Each bird had a few pebbles tucked away in its beak and claws, with which they bombarded the Christian army.  Abreha’s entire army was destroyed. Abreha himself was seriously wounded but managed to reach Himyar, where he died soon after’.

*****

This time it was our turn to wait for my beloved brother at the port of Adulis.  I spotted him the minute he stepped down onto the docks.  He was still attired in Arabic garments; just like the day I met him at the port in Himyar.  I leaned down and told my five-year-old granddaughter, ‘There he is’! That is your aunt Azeb’s favourite uncle Yakob, she keeps telling you about’.  My granddaughter Aster let go of my hand and went skipping down the quay into the hands of Yakob.

My nephew Meleake followed Aster. When Yakob put Aster down and held his son, his eyes were breaming with tears.  
My family’s faces and mine were awash with tears of joy this time – grateful that he was alive and that we were reunited once again.

Azeb wrote in her scroll that the Roman Cardinal Cesare Baronio officially recognized her second-cousin, Emperor Kaleb, as St. Elesbaan; for his protection of Christians in South Arabia.   His thirty-year rule was the most venerated and best documented among the Axumite dynasty.  She concluded, ‘I am glad to note that, apart from the Emperor, I and several other members of my family contributed in our different ways to the success of this period’.

Excerpt from Tarik;  A collection of short stories by Bethlehem Attfield.

 

 

The Scroll of Azeb – Part One

It is Meskerem, the first month of the five-hundred and twenty-fifth year after Christ’s birth. My family and I are to travel to Himyar.  With our oldest two daughters already married, my husband Ermias and I are taking with us only our seven year-old daughter, Azeb.

I cannot believe I am soon to leave this land, Abyssinia; a precious motherland that I grew up venerating.  I wonder if other women feel the same way about our Empire, or may be it is because I became privy to our ancient history when I was still a small child. I clearly remember the time; Prince Kaleb’s tutor Abba Samuel started the day’s lesson by telling the eight-year old prince the story of the creation of our land.

His lilting voice rose up and down making the story all the more engrossing. My mother and I were sitting at the corner of the room, where she was spinning cotton, and I playfully carding the cotton balls to take out the seeds.  From time to time, I looked at the other corner where the prince, the tutor and his assistant were sitting on a large ottoman carpet embroidered with silk. Prince Kaleb, who was reclining on a soft silk cushion suddenly sat erect, eager to hear the story while the tutor read from a scroll.

Millions of years ago, our land was in turmoil from great forces of nature. The Ethio-Arabian landmass started lifting up. There was nothing to abate the pressure brewing up inside this swelling, like a pregnant mother in labour.

A topography of unequal beauty was born in this land that we now call Ethiopia. The variety is immense; flat-topped plateau, arid salt plains, high rugged mountains, deep river gorges, rolling plains, lofty vertical escarpments. A land of such extreme contrasts, that makes one think that the Creator must have a sense of humour.           

The Creator also seemed to have a weakness for this land.  Thus He chose it as a residence for the first humans. Isolated by the majestic mountains that surround the country, a unique and almost mysterious civilization thrived across millennia.  Ethiopians are known to have the oldest continuous monarchy in history. It began about three thousand years ago with the legendary Queen of Sheba.          

The Queen’s rule extended from Madagascar in the East, to Nubia in the West and Egyptian borders in the North, and down to lake Victoria in the South. Having heard from Ethiopian merchants about the mighty and wise King Solomon who ruled over Israel, she went to witness it for herself. 

The King in return was besotted with the Queen of Sheba’s beauty and intelligence.  Before her return to her Empire based in Axum in the Northern Ethiopia, the Queen conceived a son from King Solomon.  The son, Menelik I, is known as the first emperor of the Solomonic Dynasty.  Upon reaching adulthood, Menelik wanted to visit his father in Jerusalem.  The King was delighted to see his son.  He gladly imparted his wisdom and experiences of governance, and invited him to stay.             

Menelik wanted to go back and rule over his mother’s domain.  His father blessed him and ordered the first born of all the Priests to accompany him back to Ethiopia.  One of these men, hoping to take God’s favour along with him, removed the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple, and smuggled it out with him.  Upon arrival in Ethiopia, Menelik was sad and angry when he found out about this abomination.  His advisors assured him that the fact that they made it back safely, meant that it was God’s will for the Ark to come to Ethiopia.  King Solomon was inconsolable when he found out that the Ark of the Covenant was lost to the Israelites. 

Prince Kaleb’s eyes grew wide with surprise.  He turned to his tutor’s assistant, for confirmation.  The assistant, a bemused smile dancing at the corner of his lips, nodded his head with affirmation.

“Yes, my Lord, what your esteemed tutor said about this land is true.  I have it right here on the almanac, if you wish me to read it for you.”  The young assistant tutor, a ferengi; a Syrian named Esthappan, came into the royal court only two years ago. His ship was wrecked and Abyssinian seafarers, who rescued him, presented him to the King as a slave, during the four hundred ninety-fifth year, after the birth of Christ.

Melkam, well…” said the prince; “How about our people being the first to inhabit the world

 

Mother-child cotton spinningI stopped carding the cotton, my eyes looking past my mother’s spinning spindle, enzirt, which twirled round and round, while trying to digest the magnitude of this news.  What a wonderful country we have.  

“That too was confirmed by the writing of Diodrus Siculus, an antiquities historian from Greece” replied Esthappan. ‘Siculus also added that Ethiopians were the first to have found the worship of God, and the practice of the law’.

God must have truly had a weakness for our land and people.  How else could we be so blessed?  I couldn’t wait to discuss this with Kaleb.  My mother, oblivious to the conversation at the other corner, looked alarmed to see me gaping, and sharply nudged me. I quickly composed myself and picked up another ball of cotton.

Although Kaleb was my cousin, we were more like siblings.  We were born in the same year, and when the Queen, Kaleb’s mother was too poorly to feed the infant, my mother (who was her sister-in-law as well as her lady-in-waiting), started feeding us both as one does with twins.  When the queen passed away five years later, my mother who was already Kaleb’s tut enat (wet nurse), also became his foster mother.

Kaleb and I remained close throughout our childhood, sharing an insatiable curiosity for our history. The 5th day of the month of Hidar, the day after we turned ten-years-old, became the highlight of our education. Kaleb and my father were to travel to Kush for the prince to witness for himself the great stone stela our forefather King Ezana erected at the confluence of the Atbara and Nile rivers.  I pestered my father so much to take me along, that eventually he agreed for my mother and I to join him.  My excitement had no bounds as we prepared for our travel.  A caravan of three hundred horses was to accompany us.  It was quite a sight; the soldiers with their white cotton tunics and lion mane collars, the priests with their long robes and turbans, the royal family with bright coloured silk embroidered robes. The servants and slaves wore traditional cotton kemis, with shema, scarfs.

Journey to Nubia

We were to ride our beautiful horses while the rest of entourage were to ride on mules.  Our food and belongings were loaded on camel backs. We left our city, Axum on first day of the month, Tir of that year. As usual riding through Axum gave me thrills.  ‘What a glamorous and bustling metropolis the city presented; with traders coming from Egypt, Rome, and even as far as India’ I thought.

Most of the traders could easily conclude their businesses at the port of Adulis, but they still preferred to come to Axum to witness for themselves our culture and our famous obelisks.  As we passed, I marveled as usual at the tallest of these monolithic structures, standing tall at 110 feet, with thirteen storeys carved upon it.

Axum obelisks and town life image

When we rode south through the jagged chain of mountains and followed the deep canyons created by Tekeze river in the West, I was reminded of the story Kaleb’s tutor told about the creation of our land.  On the fourth day we arrived at the confluence of the Atbara and the Nile, where the stela was still standing intact. The stela resembled a smaller version of King Ezana’s obelisk, which towers 70 feet over our city of Axum. I traced the letters with my fingers after Kaleb read them out loud, ‘Praise be to almighty God who gave me, his servant an easy conquest during the battle to control Meroe!’.

****

I surveyed our bedroom one last time and rang the bell for the servant to collect the leather bags I had filled with our clothing.  I should be grateful to be part of this glorious history in all of Christendom and to support my husband in his new role in Himyar.

A few years earlier, ayhudoch, the Jews from South Arabia started persecuting Christian traders, including Abyssinians.  Emperor Kaleb with the support of Alexandria and the Byzantine government waged a war against the Himyarites Jews.

He prepared seven-two ships, and seventy thousand warriors and prayed;

‘Almighty God, the creator of the universe, who has multitude of angels at your disposal, Lord of Lords, Father of the Holy Saviour, in the name of your only child whom you have sent to earth to save us, witness the horrendous atrocities the Himyaritic Jews have inflicted on Christians, and do not shame me in my quest to seek vengeance for your children.  If You, my Father deem my sins numerous and will not hear my prayer, please let me perish right now, instead of in battle.  Please Lord do not let my people fall in the hands of the enemy, who denied You!’.

When Emperor Kaleb reached Himyar, the Jewish King Du Nuwas who was waiting for him with a thirty-thousand strong Jewish army, ordered the battle to begin.  Du Nuwas’s army, who were waiting on ships, started raining arrows and spears on the Abyssinian fleet of ships.  However, the Christian naval fleet had the advantage of a few experienced Byzantine commanders who advised the Abyssinian fleet to maintain strategic formation of ships.

Soon, in the heat of battle, some Himyarite ships drifted off the main body and were easily destroyed, while Du Nuwas’s ships came broadside to the Abyssinian ships and the two armies engaged in close range battle.

Ship battle2

My brother Yakob, who was one of the commanders of the Abyssinian ships, ordered tankuas, reed boats to be lowered in the shallows and the soldiers climbed down ropes for the descent.   Yakob ordered some of younger archers and slingers to stay on board the ship and cover those on boats with their arrows and slingshots.

Before the boats reached shore, the few Christian ships loaded with ballistae, started launching their imposing javelin, which overwhelmed the Hymyarite army on shore. Soon, hand-to-hand combat with spears and swords raged, with the Abyssinians pushing the Himyarites.  Yakob’s good quality protective armour, presented to him by the Emperor himself, managed to fend of many of the fiery arrows from the enemy.  The loyal young soldiers on the ship were more focused in covering their commanders than anyone else.

This gave Yakob, and many of the other officers a chance to fearlessly pursue their enemies on the abandoned horses, all the way to town.  Du Nuwas, loath to witness the ransack of his domain, spurred his stallion into the sea, and drowned.

The Abyssinian Christian army thanked their God for the victory and showed mercy to the defeated army and civilians.  They allowed them to bury their dead and pacified them by promising them that none of their properties would be looted.

Emperor Kaleb left an army of five thousand, and posted General Abreha as Viceroy.  My younger brother Yakob was also to stay in Saa’na as General Abreha’s personal assistant.  A few years on, Abreha rebelled and became the self proclaimed King of South Arabia.  The Emperor, keen to avoid bloodshed among his own people, did not try hard to overthrow Abreha, instead he appointed my husband, as a financial councilor to collect South Arabian tribute from the wealthy land around Saa’na.

****

Yakob, who was keen to meet his little niece Azeb for the first time was waiting for us with a group of servants and horses, at the harbor of Himyar.  Although he was attired like the local Arabs, I made out my brother as he swiftly walked along the quay in our direction.  I leaned down and told Azeb that the man who was coming towards us was my beloved little brother.  Azeb, skipped ahead towards the uncle she was meeting for the first time.  I could hear Yakob’s booming laugh as he gave her a big hug and picked her up in his arms. He then said ‘Ahlan wa sahlan, habibti!’.

‘That sounds funny.  What does it mean?’ enquired the inquisitive Azeb.

“It means ‘welcome my darling’ in the Arabic language.  If you are indeed like me, as your mother claims, you will pick up Arabic in no time, little one’ he responded, as he put her down and rushed to greet us.

While we were riding to Saa’na where General Abraha and his men were stationed, Yakob explained; “Zafar was the capital of the Himyarites until we took over, and the Himyar were a tribal confederacy, which at one point extended as far as Riyadh’.

Himyar map new

We rode through a colourful market town, where traders were unloading goods from their camels.

There was another market-town by the shore, Cana, the centre for frankincense” Yakob said pointing to the bay, “and facing it there were two desert islands, one called Island of Birds, the other Dome Island.  All the frankincense produced in the country used to be brought by camels to Cana and loaded in boats. But nowadays, the demand for frankincense has gone down, since Christians prefer to bury their dead than embalm or cremate’.

“What does to embalm and cremate mean?” Azeb who was riding with me upon a beautiful stallion, called out

Yakob laughed and winked at me, ‘I will tell you all about it in good time my dear’.

****

 “I’m ready Imma-Ma” Azeb said, as she dipped her quill into the ink. We had been in Himyar for some time but we were still adjusting to the sweltering heat.

‘Start with; May peace be with you Jan Hoi, your majesty. Relations between King Abreha and my husband are very good, thanks be to God.  Although my diplomatic brother may have most to do with it as you can imagine.’

Ever since Azeb turned eight-years old, I have been asking her to write all my letters.  Although I had picked up vast knowledge while Kaleb was being tutored, I had never been taught how to write or read.

With my daughter Azeb, it is an entirely different story.  She does not have to scrape second hand knowledge, as I did.  Her father taught her arithmetic, her uncle Yakob taught her languages – Ge’ez, Arabic and Greek, and I impart my knowledge through story telling.

Azeb, who seemed to have an extra-ordinary memory as well as a vivid imagination, took to writing like a professional scribe would.  Although I worried from time to time, what kind of a wife she could possibly make, I dared not shatter her dream of being a scribe.  If we were in Axum, things would have been different.

Azeb recorded in her scroll, how Axum had economically benefited from high revenues during King Abreha’s rule.  She also charted how her uncle played a significant roll in keeping peace between the different tribes; particularly with the Bedouins, whose loyalty to King Abreha was paramount to keeping the trade routes safe.

 

She wrote; the Bedouins are sometimes thought to be as treacherous as the desert they live in.  But my uncle Yakob knew otherwise.  He not only forged a lifetime friendship with them but, made sure they stayed loyal to the King.  Yakob claims he felt the closest to God, while he was staying with the barbarian Bedouins in the desert.  Unlike King Abreha, whose life’s mission is to evangelize the barbarian Arabs, Yakob did not impose his Christian faith on the tribal people he forged strong relationships with.’

Bedoine sketch

Yakob however, she continued, ministered to the Bedouins and Arabs through his actions’.  The night he lost his Bedouin mistress to a merciless sandstorm which ravaged their camp in the dunes, Yakob fell down in the drifting sands to praise God;  I saw the angle of the Lord, and lived.  Glory be to the highest , he proclaimed.

His companions asked him what he meant.  So he told them the story of Jacob from the Old Testament, after whom he was named.  ‘A man wrestled with Jacob all through the night, but could not overpower him.  When daybreak was approaching, the man said: let me go.  But Jacob replied: I will not let you go unless you bless me.  So the stranger told him that: His name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and men and have overcome’.

‘I too feel like I had fought with the angle of God.  I am anguished because my beloved mistress is gone, but God spared my son and gave me his blessing, and I thank God for his mercy’, reasoned Yakob.  The elders saw his wisdom and allowed him to take his son and raise him among his people.

Azeb also charted the achievements of King Abreha; ‘South Arabia was governed well and it grew prosperous under King Abreha’s rule.  Axum, our Empire benefited both from the peace maintained in the trade route as well as from revenues.  The king improved public works and built monuments and churches in South Arabia, in the hope to convert his subjects to Christianity. He also finished the repair of the Marib dam, which took years to complete.  His successful rule was acknowledged by all of the powerful nations’.

Excerpt from Tarik;  A collection of short stories by Bethlehem Attfield.

The Lost Spell by Yismake Worku Translated by Bethlehem Attfield

Now I am only a sorrier version of the dog that traversed through the forest with the grace of a cheetah.

For this week’s Translation Tuesday, visionary novelist Yismake Worku adopts fantasy and satire as probing social commentary in this excerpt from The Lost Spell. While researching a book of spells, a wealthy man transforms himself into a dog. We follow the (now) canine protagonist as he journeys to Addis Ababa, and through his eyes we witness the sublime beauty of the Ethiopian landscape. The story of one man’s literal dehumanization allegorizes the abasement our narrator witnesses around him as he simultaneously lauds and laments his country. Through the narrator’s unique position as both subjective participant and objective bystander, Worku presents a fly-on-the-wall (or a dog-on-the-road) view of contemporary Ethiopia that is at once a critique and a bittersweet love letter. Follow the link below to read the published article:

Chasing the Wind

Coco beach2What curious creatures! I chuckled watching the hermit crabs run as fast as their claws could take them to dodge the waves.  That reminds me of my own escapade from possible incarceration.   Freedom! What a beautiful feeling. I closed my eyes and threw my head back. I feel like stretching my arms and hugging this feeling that has been illusive for so long. I can feel the wind brushing my neck.  Opening my eyes, I let my gaze wonder along the Indian Ocean to the horizon. I am surprised that my first viewing of the sea would be this momentous. I am standing on the beach in Dar es Salaam., which actually means ‘Abode of Peace’.  I feel like my soul is lifted onto a different plane.  Yes, I feel peace.  Never being keen on religion before, I am baffled that the sea could possibly evoke a glimpse of the spiritual realm.

I come from a landlocked country, surrounded with high rugged mountains. The people are so proud of their land. They are proud of its antiquity. It is a land where the first humans walked the planet.  They say its history and culture dates back thousands of years.  Although I am proud of this culture, I feel it can also be a repressive burden. So, unlike my ancestors and my parents, who hold their history, religion and culture as the pillar of their lives, I essentially refuse to be similarly rooted.  I believe in change, movement, in fluidity.

My mother and her friends smacked their lips one too many times, and declare with resolution, ‘God will not give you beyond what you can bear!’  ‘Crap’, I thought, every time they said that.  I could see their shoulders bent from their cultural burdens.  Why on earth didn’t they shrug this load of norms off and walk away.  Move, run free!  I later learned that breaking free and starting afresh was not as easy as I assumed.

I clearly remember the first time I urged my mother to leave. My father had brought my half brother to our house for the first time, the bastard son my mother never knew existed.  The boy seemed about the same age as my younger brother. When my father cleared his voice and said.  ‘Kids, this is Leul.  He is your brother’, I turned to my mother and noted her shock.

Years later, whenever I remember this incident, ‘crestfallen’ is the nearest expression I could come up with to describe my mother’s expression that day.  She didn’t utter a word.  She simply got up and went to the bedroom but her expression said it all. I hated that strange boy for causing my mother so much pain.  I hated my father as well, but as usual I could never stay angry with him for long.

That was the first time I went into my parents’ bedroom and packed a bag for my mother, and left it on the bed.  I wanted her to leave instead of suffering like this. My mother never took my bait. ‘I will never let myself be weak and helpless like her’, I promised myself.

By the time I grew older, my grievances against my father were no longer on behalf of my mother, but myself. The year I turned fifteen years old was a particularly hard one.  The boys in my school were suddenly like vultures.  They all hung around me and seemed to want a part of me.

One Friday evening, my father scolded me and created the usual havoc about my coming back late after school. ‘Is that girl coming from school just now’? I heard him shouting.  I winced at the thought of my mother receiving the brunt of my disobedience.  Whenever my father got angry with me he stopped addressing me by name.  He talked about me using the third person, taking out his anger at being challenged on my mother as well as me.  As I pass through the corridor, I saw my mother sitting hunched, quietly finishing her stitching.  I sat on my bed cross-legged and sulked. I had only gone to my friend’s house to watch a video.  I felt a finality settling in my heart.  Then, suddenly I calmed right down. That was it.  ‘Tomorrow would be the day I leave’, I whispered to myself.  My mother has enough burdens already.  I loathed being the cause of more strife in her already difficult existence.

My father, like most men in leadership roles in our country , assumed that he knows the best for the family, as they do for the people they govern. Well, times have changed.  My parents and their ancestors may have fought for the sovereignty of their country.  My generation and I however, are fighting for freedom to speak and choose directions in our lives for ourselves.

When my mother went out shopping the next morning, I rummaged through her drawers and took fifty birr.  I knew this was just enough for a day outing in the city.  My plan was not to return home.  That means I would have to find a means to sustain myself.  I hurriedly wrote a note to tell my parents not to look for me.  ‘Just so you know, I am not running away with a man’, I added as an afterthought, and left the note on their bed.

I grabbed the bag I packed the night before and left home. The bus to Addis Ababa had only five people inside.  The driver opened the front seat door for me and told me it would fill in a couple of minutes. A couple of minutes stretched to an hour.

‘Sorry you had to wait long’, the driver apologized as he pulled the bus out of the station. ‘It is ok, I am not in a hurry’.  I looked out at the road as the crowd of people, horse drawn carts and pack animals started to thin out as we got to the main motor road to Addis Ababa. I briefly thought I saw our neighbour pass by, and slid down and ducked to hide.

I felt the driver giving me that long, searching look again.  I couldn’t be bothered to turn to him or to explain.  I straightened up and continued staring out at the scenes on the road.  Fast cars packed with families sped towards Nazareth, perhaps eager to get to Soderehot-spring resorts and chill out.

I subtly nodded in satisfaction.  I have arrived at that place – a state of mind, where nothing seems to matter.  No worries, no anger, no anticipation, no planning.  I have taken a bold step to leave home. I have no idea how life would turn out in Addis Ababa.  I was happy for fate to take over.

‘So what awaits you in Addis Ababa?’ the driver asked as if he was following my muse.  I took a good look at him and decided to be honest with him.  ‘I don’t know’.

He chuckled by the unexpected reply, and sucked his breath.  ‘Well it is a big city for a young girl who doesn’t know her way, don’t you think’? He sounded earnest, no sneering intended. I looked at him again.  He was young himself, may be in his early twenties.  I noted earlier that he was short. To make up for his height he was wearing a trendy Ramseycombat boots with chunky heels.

‘I’m Mesfin by the way’ he offered his right hand out. I told him my name and shook his hand, smiling at his formality.  His cleanly shaven face looked earnest.  He had kind but intense eyes.  Mesfin went on to describe the quirks of the capital city.  He had a humorous way of describing the hardships of living in an overcrowded city.

‘The city is like a huge magnet.  People migrate to the capital from all over the country.  The rich come to indulge in the comforts the city offers. The poor come in the hope of earning a living.’  He talked about how rich some of the beggars were.  ‘They stash almost all the cash given to them as alms by religious people. They stuff it under their mattresses until death.  Money for them is the end, not a means to comfort.’

As we got near La garein Addis Ababa,traffic got heavier.  Mesfin stopped talking and concentrated more on dodging pedestrians and honking cars. People were rushing around like ants. Others were patiently queuing for taxi or bus.  Mesfin pulled at the bus stop and cut the engine.  As people in the bus prepared to leave, I nervously shuffled in my sit, and made a vague motion of preparing to leave as well.  My body was stiff from anxiety and my face must also have shown concern.

‘Look, you don’t have to leave now.  Stay with me while I do one more shuttle back to Nazreth and then you can stay with me in Addis, until you figure out what you want to do’ he proposed. I let out a long breath of relief, and I nodded my agreement.

That evening I found myself back in the same town I was so eager to leave. Mesfin claimed that he was tired and it was not safe to drive back to Addis in the dark.   Instead of going home, I found myself in a small hotel with a man I had only met that afternoon.

He went into the room and stretched out on the bed with a long sigh. I dropped my bag on the side table and went to the large window.  I lifted the heavy curtains a bit and looked into an inner courtyard.  It was a rectangular court lit with bright electric bulbs. Colourful fairy lights were laced on hedges by the fence. As I dropped the curtains back, Mesfin sprang up from the bed and declared, ‘You must be famished.  Let’s go and eat dinner’.

When we got back to the room, he patiently waited until I finished jotting the day’s events in my diary and peeled back the bedcover.  He sighed and snuggled to my side.

I cleared my throat and said.  ‘Mesfin, I need my space.  Can you please stay on your side?’  ‘Wha…what do you mean?’ he stammered.

‘Well, you and I just met today.  I appreciate you trying to help me but that doesn’t mean you have a right to touch me’.

‘In that case, what are you doing in my bed?’

‘I obviously don’t want you to spend extra money for an extra room.  So, it makes sense that we share this bed’. He chuckled, and sat up cross-legged facing me.  ‘Are you serious’?  ‘Ah-ha’, I calmly confirmed.

‘Look at you… look at you, looking cool and pleased as the donkey who had thrown her owner off her back’.  He sneered.

Lifting my eyebrows high with disbelief, ‘Really? Are you claiming that you own me just because you bought me dinner and let me share your room?’.  I sprang out of bed and went over to the side table to grab my bag.  I thirty birr from the zip pocket and threw it at his face.  I slipped my sandals and as I grabbed my jacket, he stammered ‘what… what are you doing?’

‘What does it look like? I’m leaving.  You don’t own me’.

‘I know, I know’, he whispered, and started walking towards me.  I quickly grabbed one of his heavy boots and raised it above my head threateningly. It had a steel applique at the front.  I assumed it would do real damage.  Don’t come any closer to me’, I warned. He raised his hands, as a reconciliatory gesture.  ‘Laila, you misunderstood me.  I didn’t mean that I owned you.’

‘But you did me a favour and you expect me to pay you back in kind’?

‘Not really… not really, it is not like that either’.

‘What is it then’?

‘You are a very beautiful young woman, Laila.  I am a lonely young man with a healthy sexual appetite.  You can’t expect me not to want to touch you while we’re sleeping in the same bed.  That is insane’.

‘I understand’, I nodded my head as if it occurred to me just then. But, it was true.  The fact is, it just didn’t occur to me before.  I dropped the boot down.

‘Well, I have to leave now’, I said turning to the door.

‘Wait… wait!’, he growled with exasperation.  ‘It is almost midnight.  Don’t you have any sense of danger?  On what planet did your parents raise you?’ I noticed Mesfin had a habit of repeating words when he was nervous.

I found his exasperation comical, and smiled.  He also smiled and pulled me back to the bed.  ‘Look, I promise I won’t touch you.  Let’s just go to sleep.  I am exhausted.’  He turned the light out and true to his word, five minutes later I could hear from his long, easy breathing that he was asleep.

The next morning Mesfin woke up early in the morning, and started to get dressed.  As I struggle to prop myself up, he said ‘Go back to sleep.  I am going to work half day today, and I will come back here for lunch. Then, I will take the afternoon off and take you to my place’.

I fell right back to sleep.  I slept most of the morning and only got up around 11.30.  I showered and changed and inspected myself in the full size mirror.

At 172cm, I was taller than Mesfin even when he was wearing his chunky boots.  I have a pale complexion.  When I was younger, Baba used to tease me, ‘Your complexion is your saving grace! But, you’re still no beauty…a dog wouldn’t lick you even if someone sprinkled salt on you’ ha ha ha, he would laugh –  an Amharic expression to mean ‘you are unattractive’.

‘Good try Baba’, I thought.  It was his way of making sure that I don’t get conceited about my looks. I guess it worked.  To this day, I don’t care much about my looks. Sometimes, I wonder why men found me so desirable.

I took out a kohl, and boldly lined my eyes, joining the line at the outer corner on my eyes to make my eyes look like more almond shaped.  I brushed out my shoulder length hair and tightly coiled it with a high bun.  My neck looked longer this way.  I liked what I saw.  My reflection reminded me of the ancient Egyptians.

I used a wet tissue to remove the kohl, and went out to the courtyard to have a café latte. Mesfin was back before I even finished my drink.  ‘Tadias,what’s up?  Were you bored?  He asked.

‘No, I am fine.  The time went by really fast’.

‘Well, not for me’ he whined. He clapped his hands for the waiter’s attention and ordered lunch.

When we got to Addis Ababa, Mesfin handed the bus keys to another driver and we took a communal mini-van taxi to his place.  The tarmac road ended where the taxi dropped us.  We walked down a small alley road for about five minutes. On both sides of the alley were houses crammed close together.  Some were separated by old semi-corroded tin fencing; others had no space to be fenced.

Once inside, I was surprised to see an empty plot of land filled with grass. At the right corner were two small white washed rooms.  ‘The owner demolished the main house a couple of months ago’, Mesfin explained.  Although the window was open, the room felt dark and dingy.

I didn’t want to get in.  I hovered at the door, taking note of the new PVC floor mat.  The fresh looking bed sheet neatly tucked around the bed; and the two suitcases at the corner of the bed.  Everything seems neat but the room still had some kind of dreariness.

‘Come in…. come in, Laila.  I know it is not much but make yourself at home’.  I dropped my bag at the corner and perched at end of the bed. He leaned down next to the side table and grabbed a cold coca cola from a cool box.  He deftly opened it without asking and offered it to me.

He rubbed his hands and said, ‘I have to go over to my boss’s house to pick up something.  It won’t take more than an hour.  Why don’t you take your shoes off and relax… relax’.  With that he was out of the door before I could say anything.  Then I heard the click.  He had locked me in.

I had a terrible foreboding that things were going to go downhill. Truly enough, half an hour later an Arab looking man unlocked the door and came in. He said, his sister was looking for a young woman to look after her two young children in Beirut.  If I worked for two years there, I could have enough money to come back and start a small business here.

What I wanted was freedom, not money.  Ironically, I had landed myself in a worse condition.  What has Mesfin done?  Could he have just sold me to an Arab?  I couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened, neither could I see a way out.

(Excerpt from my work in progress – Part Three: Laila).

Yirgalem

Oh……Yirgalem

Colour of my childhood dream;

The ray that made my eyes open

Over that golden horizon.

 

The roots, fruits, lush greenery;

Waterberry, taro, blackberry

Draped and adorned ;

As a glamourous bride.

 

Did he show you respect?

When he clad you in a cape;

Did he give you titles?

I think of you today and noticed.

 

Nature’s trumpet and bugle

The sound of alarm, at your square

Who is there to mind?

And rise to be your shield.

 

I longed for you in my travels

To reach you, my humble home.

Only to find you in ruins

My yearning changed to gloom.

 

By Debebe Seifu – Translated by B. Attfield

Advent

Dec 04_Nkomo Reflections_pEk6ivH_advent_imageIt seems that the darker the night, the more precious the Lord’s songs are to my soul.  As I contemplate the bright colors in Charles Nkomo’s “Reflections” I ponder the paradox of color and beauty which is found in suffering. Nkomo paints of the very dark season of apartheid in South Africa’s history, depicting multiracial families and individuals who were removed from their homes in Cape Town to make room for white settlements. It makes me wonder how the Lord sang over these precious hurting people. I can imagine that His songs may have sounded much like “Because I love you” performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a choral group from South Africa. “Because I love you, I will take care of you…” Even in the darkest times and seasons, the Lord comforts His people.

This is the message of Advent, Christ come to earth as Immanuel, God with us (Mt 1:23). In the dark of night and silence the skies erupted with angelic voices to announce the birth of Jesus. The Mighty One broke through, not with rebuke but with words of rejoicing, encouragement, and praise: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace amongst those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). This Christmas, I pray that the Lord breaks through the silence of night, quiets your soul with His love, and I pray that you would know that He rejoices over you, as He reminds you of His great love for you.

 

Dr. Suzanne Welty
Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders
Biola University

 

 

I packed her bag

1987 – Nazreth, Ethiopia

It was a bright Saturday morning. My brother Nur, and I were taking turns at skipping rope. A big pot of water was being heated on the coal burner in the front yard. My mother came out and poured the boiling water into a plastic bucket. She filled the pot with cold water and put it back to heat. She took the bucket of boiled water to the tap and mixed cold water until it was the right temperature and called me inside for my weekly bath.

I stripped my clothes off and stepped inside the cut out metal oil barrel, which we used as a bathtub. My mother was quite as usual. She lathered a wet face towel with a Lux, her preferred bar soap and scrubbed my body. She rinsed my body with water and repeated the scrub again. Finally she wrapped a towel around me and helped me step out. Just then I heard my fathers voice greeting our neighbours, as he stepped inside with Nur and a strange boy slightly smaller than me.

I will never forget my mother’s expression when my father cleared his voice and said. ‘Kids, this is Leul. He is your brother’.

Years later, whenever I remember this incident, ‘Crestfallen’ is the nearest expression I could come up with to describe my mother’s expression that day. She didn’t utter a word. She simply got up and went to the bedroom but her expression said it all. Her shame, humiliation and dejection were all too apparent. I hated that strange boy for causing my mother so much pain. I hated my father as well, but as usual I could never stay angry with him for long.

That was the first time I went into my parents’ bedroom and packed a bag for my mother, and left it at on the bed. At the age of seven, I wanted her to leave instead of living in misery. The next morning, I found my mother cooking breakfast as usual. My father had left the house early. When I went to their bedroom, I saw the bag unpacked and stowed away. I wondered what made my mother so complying.

Harari womanMy maternal grandmother was a force to be reckoned with.  Historically, Harari are the elite tribe in Harar. My grandmother however, born of a prominent Argoba Muslim-Oromo mother and a rich Kotu farmer father, still had a good stead in Harari society. Although the Oromo were known as an inferior tribe in Harar, my grandmother was known as a wise woman in the community. Widowed relatively young, she was a matriarch in her own right, and lived in a small town located near city of Harar, in Eastern Ethiopia. She often told the story of how her own mother torched the Egyptians who burned her village.

Whenever my grandmother told this story her strong deep voice assumes a melodic tilt, as if she wanted to sing praises of her mother.

Although the Egyptians Occupied Harar for a short time, their rule was harsh and cruel. The Emirate of Harar has been an independent territory for over two hundred years. Like all emirates we were technically under the protection of the Ottoman Turks until the Khedives occupied it in 1818. Then they started treating our people, as if they were slaves. They annulled our ownership of properties. They often found excuses to flog our people with a Kurbash, a heavy hide whip, or cut their hands. Fortunately, the Englise defeated the Khedivate and ordered the Egyptian garrisons in Harar to withdraw.

 Before departure, these cruel masters wanted to give us a memorable farewell. They burned some local villages including a village that my parents’ used to have a large tenure in. Our people were furious. They organized themselves and went to have their vengeance. While the men were away, my mother assembled the women and ordered them to build a grass hut. When they brought the leaders with their hands and legs tied, she requested for them to be placed inside the freshly made grass hut and torched it.’

It is a shame that my mother did not take after her strong maternal linage. Instead, I think she grew up being intimidated by the powerful women in her family that she ended up being timid. ‘Poor Ima’!

(Excerpt from my work in progress – Part One: Laila).